hcmf// 2010: Art of noise: Cage and chance at hcmf//

John cage

"If people don’t know Cage’s visual arts but they do know his music, then when they see the visual art then they will go, ‘Of course – what else would it look like?"

This year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival contains several events dedicated to John Cage (1912–1992), the American composer whose innovations changed the direction of 20th-century music and whose ideas continue to both inspire and provoke, a decade into the 21st.

In 2008 the festival featured John Cage: Concert Reclaimed, both a retrospective and a forward-facing response to the composer’s controversial 1958 New York Town Hall concert. This year hcmf// takes a new angle on Cage, exploring the links between his music and the artworks on show in Every Day is a Good Day, an exhibition which is the first major UK survey of Cage’s visual art and which launches simultaneously with hcmf// on Friday 19 November. With concerts taking place both amongst the prints and paintings in Huddersfield Art Gallery and elsewhere at hcmf//, the events shed light upon how Cage’s output in both fields was the result of a radical questioning of how, and why, art should be made.

Every Day is a Good Day was conceived by Jeremy Millar, an artist living in Kent who also teaches at the Royal College of Art. He recalls how, when he was younger, he became aware of Cage as a cultural icon whose concepts reached far beyond the concert hall. “It was almost as much the idea of Cage and the possibilities that he opened up for people – knowing that he was friends with Duchamp and Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg and all these other figures – so it was him as a complete phenomenon as much as the specific things. I found his interviews and writings incredibly inspiring and influential,” he says.

Produced by the touring arm of the Hayward Gallery, the exhibition opened in June at the BALTIC centre in Gateshead before travelling on to Cambridge; after Huddersfield it will visit Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea. Every incarnation will be noticeably different, not only in terms of the wide variety of host venues and the distinct events attached to each setting but at the level of the show itself.

Millar’s aim was to create a touring exhibition that wouldn’t lose impetus as it went on: “I was thinking about whether an exhibition could be more like a performance in some way,” he explains. So each gallery features a unique selection and hanging arrangement of Cage’s art, chosen using methods similar to those Cage employed to produce the works themselves.

Although the young John Cage was a keen painter and was at one point apprenticed to the architect Ern? Goldfinger (whose buildings include London’s brutalist Trellick Tower), in his 20s he laid the creation of visual art to one side in order to concentrate on composition. Approaching Arnold Schoenberg to enquire about possible tuition, the 12-tone pioneer asked Cage whether he was prepare to devote his whole life to music; when Cage said yes, Schoenberg offered to teach him for free. Yet he maintained connections to the visual art world, teaching at Chicago’s School of Design and enjoying friendships with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, whose ‘White paintings’ featured at one of Cage’s early multimedia ‘happenings’ and can be seen as a conceptual predecessor to Cage’s notorious 4’33”.

Cage resumed making visual art in 1969, when he was asked to create a response to the death of Marcel Duchamp and produced the prints (silkscreen on Plexiglass and lithographs) Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel in collaboration with Calvin Sumsion. He went on to make further prints at Crown Point Press in San Francisco before exploring his ideas in the media of watercolour and drawing.

“A lot of the work would be seen as being very elegant, very beautiful and rather unexpected in some ways in terms of the formal juxtapositions,” Millar says. “If people don’t know Cage’s visual arts but they do know his music, then when they see the visual art then they will go, ‘Of course – what else would it look like?’ There’s a strong relationship between the two and I think that’s because they were often generated using very similar mechanisms.”

My work became an exploration of non-intention. To carry it out faithfully I have developed a complicated composing means using I Ching chance operations, making my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices.” ‘An Autobiographical Statement’, part of a speech Cage delivered upon receiving the Kyoto Prize in 1989.

Leaving creation to chance involves a lot of effort. Cage’s first major work composed using chance operations was the solo piano piece Music Of Changes (1951). Every single aspect of each musical note – pitch, duration, dynamics and so on – was determined by tossing coins and converting the heads/tails outcomes into hexagrams, stacks of six lines in every combination of solid and broken patterns. These could then be matched with those in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese text also known as the Book of Changes, where each hexagram carries a meaning for divination.

“It was incredibly long-winded: he spent two years tossing coins, literally, to write this music,” says Philip Thomas of the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in New Music. “It was very, very hard work, to then compose what is a fixed piece of music, one which he said you can read like Beethoven.”

By the time he was making the artworks in Every Day is a Good Day, Cage had developed slightly faster techniques than repeated coin-tossing, but he still maintained the approach of handing every formal decision over to chance, as Millar explains:

“With some of the paintings he would collect a number of rocks from a river, and then each rock was numbered, and then using chance operations, a certain rock would be selected, and then its position on the paper would be determined using chance operations; the instrument used to paint round it would be determined using chance operations – so it might be a certain thickness of brush, it might be a feather – and then the colour used to paint around would also be determined using chance operations.” The printmaking process at Crown Point Press was even more complex, with up to 300 distinct procedures to be defined then executed for each artwork.

Staying true to Cage’s aesthetic, the way the pictures are chosen and hung in Every Day is a Good Day also derives from chance. During the planning of the exhibition, every work was numbered, whilst each host venue indicated a range for the number of works they wanted to display. They then received a chance-generated list of numbers corresponding to which works would appear in their exhibition. In addition, imaginary grids on the gallery walls determined the placement of the pictures according to chance outcomes.

“You might walk in and see works jumbled around all over the place, and your first thought would be, ‘gosh, that’s completely random.’ But then you start seeing that there’s a structure underlying it, because certain things are lined up. I think this is one of the things that Cage suffers from: people equate chance operations with randomness,” Millar says.

As curator of the hcmf// events tying in with Every Day is a Good Day, Philip Thomas has selected music which complements the pictures. “I’ve tried to put in pieces that have either obvious or implicit links with visual art and the techniques used,” he says. Some of the concerts feature works with graphic scores stemming from visual sources, such as the dawn performance at Yorkshire Sculpture Park of Score (40 Drawings by Thoreau) and 23 parts.

“There Cage has taken little doodles by Thoreau, ones which amplify his diaries, and imposed them onto a grid, a timeline, which can then be interpreted by musicians according to instructions. Ryoanji [which will be performed by Joëlle Léandre in hcmf//’s Cage tribute concert] is a piece that’s similar in some ways; the score for the soloist is a tracing around stones, again put onto a grid to make it time-based notation. So again we have visual art being transplanted onto a time-based grid and used as the basis for musical sounds.”

The music in other concerts taking place in Huddersfield Art Gallery may have less obvious links to Cage’s visual art, but it was created using the same chance processes. Apartment House are performing Winter Music and Atlas Eclipticalis, which were composed using patterns from astronomical charts, whilst Thomas will play a new, 12-hour interpretation of Electronic Music for Piano. “After Music of Changes, Cage looked at other ways of using chance that might be quicker for him, and that also involved indeterminacy, which is where not all aspects of the notation are clearly detailed; the musicians have to make choices as to how to interpret the piece,” he explains. “There’s a difference between chance and indeterminacy, and Cage used both.

“His first attempt at doing something with more of a shorthand way of using chance was in a set of pieces called Music For Piano, which I used as the basis for my interpretation of Electronic Music For Piano. For these pieces, he had a single sheet of paper and he would use the I Ching to decide how long he had to do this task, and the task was to write little dots where there were any imperfections in the page. And sometimes chance would have given him quite a long time to do it, and sometimes it would be quite a short time, or the paper may not have had many imperfections – there’s one page with only one dot.

“Then he would then superimpose musical staves upon it and determine what musical note that dot was, using the I Ching to decide whether it was a treble clef or bass clef note. The other thing he determined was whether the note was played normally on the keyboard or by plucking the strings, or by muting them. It’s left to the performer to decide how long the note might last, how long the page might last and what dynamics to play.”

Thomas’s performance of Electronic Music for Piano is a unique new reimagining of the work. “The score – if you can call it a score – of Electronic Music for Piano is just suggestions or possibilities for a performance. The kind of things it suggests are that you use Music For Piano, so I’ve used all 84 pieces, and that you use electronics: an oscillator, friction, feedback. What I’ve done is make two prerecorded 12-hour versions and then I’m doing a live 12-hour version, and then there will be microphones around the place picking up sounds and creating feedback.

He continues: “Every decision that I’ve made about the details of the piece – about the amplitude and the frequencies of the recorded sound and the live, amplified sound; which pages I play and in what order – I’ve used chance to determine. And what I hope to do is to retranslate the score of Music for Piano into dots on the page, simply by taking measurements with a ruler and assigning values to them. I’ve reconverted the score back into dots so that I can make further measurements to make all my decisions and interpretations regarding the piece.”

Why take on the challenge of a 12-hour performance, however, when Cage’s original score doesn’t demand it? “In Cage’s later music, he talked about it being like the weather, it just exists, in this changing state. That’s why I’ve decided to do this 12-hour piece, because I’m not interested in a 10-minute statement for a piece; I’m going to do music for 12 hours, simply because I like making sounds. I love the piano, and here’s the opportunity to do this in the middle of Cage’s lovely visual artwork.”

Thomas admits that although the audience will free to come and go during the performance, for him it will be an unprecedented test of endurance. “I’ve not done anything like this before, although I am fairly used to playing long pieces. Last year at the festival I played a section of Michael Pisaro’s pi (1-2594) for piano and one page of that lasted an hour on a single note. And I’ve played Morton Feldman’s late piano works, which go up to about an hour and a half. But 12 hours is something else. There’s a lot of space for not playing, and for hearing the prerecorded sounds, the amplified sounds. It really depends how kind chance is to me on whether or not I’m going to get a lunch break!”

Six decades after Cage started exploring ‘non-intention’, the motivation behind his chance-based and indeterminate work can still seem puzzling. By letting probability take over, was he trying to uncover some greater pattern to the universe? Thomas argues that this wasn’t the case: “I don’t think there’s any kind of wider spiritual intent, other than that he was interested in aspects of Zen. He was vaguely interested in Zen Buddhism and ancient Chinese philosophies and thought, and some aspects of Christianity. All these things affected who he was, his sensibilities.

“Really the purpose of this music is just purposelessness: it doesn’t go anywhere, there’s no climaxes, no great statements. It’s purely sound. That’s not to say it’s not expressive; I find Cage’s music incredibly expressive, it’s just that the sounds are expressive without having to try to order them in any particular way. So his use here of imperfections on the page is just his own way of making no particular connection between the sounds. They’re connected because they’re on the piano and they’re being played one after another within a timespace.”

Millar suggests that Cage’s interest in Buddhism led him to try and withdraw his artistic ego from the work. “He was prepared to accept the results of a procedure that he put in place,” he says. “When I came across that as a youngish artist, I felt it was incredibly important. There’s a lot of talk about individuality, and I suppose I felt slightly uncomfortable with that but hadn’t really the conceptual wherewithal to come up with a different way of dealing with it. Cage provided that. When you have someone who was one of the most important artistic figures of the 20th century talking about not being interested in expressing himself, that was hugely liberating.”

One of the major misunderstandings about Cage, says Millar, is that he didn’t care about the outcomes of his chance-based processes. “I think it’s about where one lets go of the process. We all use different processes and he probably exerted a lot of control at the beginning of it in order then that the process would be sustainable, that it could live by itself. It’s almost like making a garden. If you’re starting from scratch, you have to make to make sure that the soil is the right sort for the plans that you want. You can’t just put it all in and hope it sorts itself out; you have to prepare it properly in order that the effect you want is possible.”

Even though many aspects of his music and visual art stem are the results of common aims and processes, John Cage the painter and printmaker is still an unfamiliar figure to many fans of his music, and vice versa. The collaboration between hcmf// and Every Day is a Good Day is one of many possible future events that could shed new light upon Cage’s creativity and cultural legacy. “Despite the fact that he is unquestionably one of the most important and influential people from the 20th century artistically, it’s almost as though he’s still underrated,” Millar says, “because I don’t think anyone has really brought together all of the things that he did. I’m generalising here, but most people in the music world don’t know anything about the visual art side. If that was brought together with the music, some of the theatre pieces, the films, interviews and writings...there’s such a massive body of work, and I don’t think anyone’s really got to grips with that yet. In some ways it feels as though his time is still yet to come.”

John Cage events at hcmf// 2010:

Ear Training (Fri 19 Nov, 12noon)

Edges Ensemble (Fri 19 Nov, 5pm)

Philip Thomas (Sat 20 Nov, 12 noon)

Score (40 Drawings by Thoreau) and 23 parts… (Sun 21 Nov, 7.30am)

Apartment House (Mon 22 Nov, hcmf// shorts)

Apartment House (Wed 24 Nov, 2.15pm)

Take the Cage Train (Wed 24 Nov, 7.30pm)

Joelle Leandre… (Thu 25 Nov, 7.30pm)

Text Messages (Fri 26 Nov, 11am)